A View from Afar / The search for a No. 10

How the Bořek Dočkal signing changes the game

Photo courtesy of Sport Invest agency

Philadelphia Union’s pending acquisition of Bořek Dočkal fills a hole so significant that it could determine the course of their 2018 season and relationship with their fans.

The 29-year-old Czech international playmaker’s arrival in America this week to finalize a deal with the Union may come a bit late for the comfort of most, with most of preseason already past.

But it’s not too late, particularly because of the Union’s forgiving opening schedule.

The Union play just two games in the season’s first four weeks. That gives Dočkal more time to gel with his teammates in practice, which is key for a central playmaker, as well as adjust to the time change.

Don’t underestimate the significance of the time zone change either. There’s a 12-hour time difference between Philadelphia and Henan province, China. You’re basically reversing the schedule of your circadian rhythms. Doing that slows down quick twitch reflexes and beats down your endurance as your sleeping patterns adjust. That’s not the sort of thing your body adapts to and normalizes in a week or even two. Combined with the fact that Dočkal is in preseason form too — the Chinese Super League runs from March to November — it could be several weeks before Dočkal normalizes to the East Coast’s time zone. So don’t bet on him starting on opening day.

Dočkal will also have to adjust to MLS. The cross-country travel takes a toll on players, as Dočkal will see in the Union’s March 31 visit to high-altitude Colorado. The refereeing styles are different, and so too is the pace of the game.

Once Dočkal is ready though, the Union should have a proven attacking midfielder answering the team’s most glaring question.

The book on Dočkal is that he’s a classic center attacking midfielder: excellent passing vision, a legitimate threat on right-footed set pieces, and a defensive liability. The vision is a requirement. The set piece talent should be a fantastic complement to Haris Medunjanin’s skill on left-footed set pieces. The weak defense will present problems, particularly if David Accam plays defense like he did for Chicago (i.e. not much), but the Union have the advantage of a captain and a starting striker, of all things, who set a fantastic example for defensive effort.

While Dočkal hasn’t played much in top leagues — the Czech and Norwegian leagues, where he has spent most of his career, rank 14th and 29th in Europe — he has produced well against quality competition in both the Europa League and as an international. He projects as a legitimate difference-maker.

The Union still have to close the deal though. Dočkal wants out of his current club situation, but Henan Jianye just dropped a $9 million transfer fee on him a year ago. That price was inflated well above Dočkal’s perceived market value, as many Chinese acquisitions were at that time, but it doesn’t mean Henan will happily accept a major financial loss. (Transfermarkt values him at around $2 million.)

Right now, it looks like a one-year loan is in the offing.

If it comes with an option to buy, it’s ideal, giving the Union a year to test-drive Dočkal while seeing what Adam Najem can do with more MLS minutes than he got last year.

If there’s no purchase option, however, then it makes Dočkal a stopgap. That’s a problem, particularly if Najem doesn’t impress in MLS this season. No Union fan wants to see the club revisiting the same No. 10 gap next winter.

Eighteen-year-old Anthony Fontana intrigues the way any teenage signing does, but let’s maintain perspective here. The next American teenager making an impact as a No. 10 will be the first one not named Christian Pulisic. Fontana played just 11 games in USL last year, with no goals or assists and just four key passes in 693 minutes (or one per 173 minutes), whereas Najem netted two goals, eight assists, and 37 key passes in 1,989 USL minutes (one per 54 minutes).

All that said, for many Union fans, the Dočkal signing will be the difference between taking the Union seriously and blowing them off. Just in this publication, we’ve seen numerous Union fans publicly state that they are not renewing their season tickets this year, and that’s after the Union recorded a record-low attendance last year. Remember, this club routinely sold out matches in their early years, performing so well that they were publicly discussing a stadium expansion, so it’s not like fans don’t show up for a good product.

Dočkal’s arrival still won’t signify the Union can battle financially with MLS’s biggest hitters, but it at least sends a message before opening day that this team is still worth taking seriously and could be a lot of fun to watch.


  1. Adjusting to MLS refs and the physicality of the league is always something to take into consideration. However, players coming from Eastern European leagues are generally accustomed to that type of physical play. So while there will still be an adjustment, at least it wouldn’t be a steep learning curve.
    The travel and his adjustment from China is a concern. But hopefully he’ll take the time over the next month to acclimate and that will be a short-lived concern.
    You know…assuming he actually signs…

    • Joel Pterosaur says:

      I get the time thing, but last time I checked China was just as big as the US, so shouldn’t he be mostly ready for the travel?

      • More so then leagues in Europe but literally all of the teams in the Super League are on the east side of the country.

      • While China is similar in size to the US, the difference would be locations. Most of the Chinese League are on the East Coast or towards the center. No team is in their western region. There will be more travel for him here when going to the West Coast as the distance is 65% more for our furthest two teams (I believe Vancouver and Orlando) then their two.

  2. Let’s hope. However all posts should end with … #slumlord.

    • If he drops $3.8M/year on a player, I think we can remove that hashtag.
      But let’s hold off until we hear more details about cost…

      • Maybe #slumlordinrecovery then?

      • I don’t know, MLS has been known to cover transfer costs in the past, and I think we still have a decent pile of Garber Bucks laying around, so $ugarman’s actual outlay of money might be relatively slim. Add to that the potential for Henan Jianye to cover a portion of his salary and that results in #slumlord.

  3. A loan with option to buy would be great, but even just a pure loan is good too. At the end of the loan, he would be starting the last year of the contract and not far off from being able to sign for free. The Union and the player would have much more leverage for a purchase then. Plus, the chinese club would be another year removed from the transfer fee and would have already moved on from an on field perspective. Hopefully, that might mean the sunk cost issue is less of a problem at that time.

  4. Just once it would be nice to get a major signing in who gets the full benefit of pre-season with the team, rather than bringing them in a week or two before the season. Has that ever happened with the Union?

  5. Really hope its a done deal!

  6. I know he’s 2 years younger, but is he a cheaper option than Lee Nguyen?

  7. lets get it done…… and hire a translator today.

  8. If this guy is “all that”… let’s see. We’ve heard this all before… haven’t we? Yup, the perfect guy, that fits directly in Curtin’s “system”… let’s see.

    I thought the line… “… could determine the course of their 2018 season and relationship with their fans.” was perfect.

    “In Earnie we trust…” HAS to be proven this year. We’ve waited long enough for a winning team, and with this owner who has NOT stepped up till the league gave him $2.4M more money to use.

    We’re not even asking for the Cup, just to be a consistent winner, and make the playoffs. That’s all.

    And after 9 years as a season ticket holder, paying hard earned money for those tickets, well, Jim Curtin… its time. Win or move down to Bethlehem or get out of town. You would do great in the USL or USL Div 3… but this is the big leagues, for big boy coaches who know how to win as a coach… prove you are a big boy coach, Jim.

    We need to win in 2018! PERIOD.

    Let’s see.

  9. What we’re really trying to figure out: is Doćkal +/- points per game from Barnett’s and the “magical” run for 6th in 2016 and a one-an-done playoff appearance.

  10. Everyone knows that the Chinese league greatly inflated transfer fees and salaries of players. Now they know they must pay the piper. from what I know the player has agreed personal terms it’s all about the transfer fee and the MLS will decide that in our non-democratic league.

    I’ve also been told that Haris is familiar with his play having faced him in international play but who really knows until we see him on the pitch…

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